Venice is more than a city, it is in fact the embodiment of the human spirit. Each day nature sends rising tides to test the resilience of this remarkable place. Barriers have been placed at sea as a prophylactic, but nature is relentlessly testing Venetian mettle.
It is hard to believe that this island metropolis is built on piles and stands below sea level. When the rainy season begins, Piazza San Marco becomes a lake that is negotiated with a rowboat. Venetians take this for granted. Every native has a pair of floaters in anticipation of flooding. Yet there are very few who would change places with those on the mainland, as the escalating price of property suggests.
Tourism is yet another annual challenge. Carrying their backpacks and fanny packs, hordes march through the narrow streets in search of Tintoretto, gelatos, gondola rides and the romance of Casanova. It is amazing that the Bridge of Tears can tolerate the weight of photographers trying to capture a moment of the past for the family album. Because there isn’t any rhyme or reason for the street design, tourists are in a perpetual state of confusion. I encountered a couple from Boston who kept returning to the same spot even though they claimed to be taking a different route over an hour of desperate turns.
Of course, getting lost in Venice is one of the great joys in life. There is always a church you haven’t encountered before. Or maybe you find the piazza in the movie Summertime, where Katharine Hepburn fell in the canal only to be rescued by Rossano Brazzi.
Venice surprises. Like the masks worn at Carnivale, the real Venice hides behind upscale shops and museums with priceless artistic work. In November, when fog engulfs the city and drizzle is in the air, the real Venice appears. Without motor vehicles, the sound of the city is bells. The tourists are in distant places. Stores are closed. The silence is breathtaking. The city is in hibernation, not to awaken until June, when the tourists leave the train station and hop on the vaporettos along the Grand Canal.
In June the flowers are in bloom, water taxis have been removed from building caves, and the gondoliers are given a lease on life. This is the beginning of the commercial boom, a period of prosperity that lasts about four months. For most Venetians, you make it then, or you don’t make it.
While Venice lives in the past, it is not immune to fashionable opinion. In the Piazza San Stefano can be found the Open University of Diversity. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection features modern art arguably too vanguardish for the Whitney. And every Venetian has a cell phone in perpetual use. It is the Italian way.
Yet what most find appealing is not the present, but the past. The Doge’s Palace and Galileo’s tower attract many more tourists than the Guggenheim museum. Even the Jewish ghetto tells a story of oppression and recovery over centuries. Four hundred Jews today keep the story of the Jewish Venetian past alive.
Venice speaks to history. Napoleon was a benefactor for the great centers of artistic achievement. Leaders from around the globe gravitated to this center of canals. There are cities with more canals than Venice—Amsterdam being the classic example—but none possess the mystery, the intoxicating sensuality, of Casanova’s birthplace.
As the gondoliers paddle their way along the canals “Volare” is played on recording devices. It is hokey, but confirms a stereotype for first-time visitors. Yet there are few moments more rewarding than sipping a cold Bellini with real peach juice on a balcony off the Grand Canal as gondolas gracefully float by, suggesting that God, at least an Italian God, is in his heaven and much is right with the world.
Venice defies nature, but affirms life. She floats to a melody of her own creation that attracts visitors from every corner of the globe. If Venice is ever overcome by the sea, the world will suffer. But I cannot envision that day, for Venice exudes the spirit and energy of mankind, which cannot be dethroned.
It's a city unto itself, where a journey into the past requires the resilience of the present. Galileo would have loved the Open University of Diversity--and the Bellinis.